It is an irony of history that one of the first martyrs of the American Revolution was an Afro-Indian sailor and runaway slave from Framingham, Massachusetts, Crispus Attucks. In 1770 nervous British soldiers shot on a crowd of belligerent patriots, killing three of them, including Attucks, instantly and wounding eight others, two of whom later died, in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. Attucks thought he had a stake in the fight. He had had the temerity to write to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson charging him with crimes against the “people in general.” John Adams defended the Redcoats and blamed the episode on the unruly “saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack-tarrs.” A few years later Adams adopted Attucks’s name to use as a pseudonym for an essay he wrote on liberty. His cousin Sam Adams, the mastermind behind the Sons of Liberty, organized the funeral procession of the five patriots who fell in Boston. Abolitionists used the symbolism of Attucks’s martyrdom well into the nineteenth century.1

The story of revolutionary antislavery is an interracial one, flowing in distinct streams and converging in particular moments of challenges to slavery. The Age of Revolution, starting with the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions in the late eighteenth century and ending with the Latin American Wars of Independence in the 1810s and 1820s and the failed European revolutions of the 1830s and 1848, gave birth to the first wave of abolition.2 Abolitionists subjected the revolutionary pretensions of American slaveholders to rigorous critique. Black resistance acquired new potency during the War of Independence and destabilized slavery.3

The Haitian rather than the American Revolution, in which slave resistance, revolutionary republicanism, and abolitionism came together in a heady mix, marks the high point in the history of revolutionary antislavery. The only instance of a successful slave rebellion in world history, it created the first independent modern black nation.4 Despite its subsequent tragic history, Haiti answered the cry of millions of enslaved Africans: we have no country. It became the source of an alternative revolutionary tradition for abolitionists throughout the Atlantic world.


The heritage of the Enlightenment was a mixed blessing for Africans, giving a powerful impetus to antislavery but also containing elements that justified their enslavement. The French philosophes and Scottish thinkers condemned slavery, but more than a few made exceptions to their general theories on the basis of climate, race, and region. As Benjamin Rush asked, how had Europe, “civilized as it is, and thoroughly versed in the laws of nature, and the rights of mankind” authorized “the daily outrages against human nature, permitting them to debase man almost below the level of the beasts of the field?” In his answer to the proslavery and racist response of the West Indian planter Richard Nisbet to his antislavery pamphlet, Rush asserted the intellectual and moral equality of Africans to Europeans. To the English thinker John Locke slavery was abominable and outside the social contract but the enslavement of Africans was legitimate, a condition of prisoners taken in a “just war.” Locke’s notion of property as a natural right also bolstered slaveholders’ claims. The liberal political philosopher helped write the feudal constitution of South Carolina in 1665 and was a shareholder in the slave-trading Royal African Company. Racial slavery was the material basis for the growth of white republicanism in Virginia. But belief in republican principles also posed a threat to slavery, which in turn weakened commitment to revolutionary ideals.5

No “contagion of liberty” flowed inexorably according to its own logic to slaves. They and their antislavery allies transformed revolutionary currents into a call for African liberty. James Otis, in a pamphlet of 1764 vindicating the colonists’ rights in the aftermath of the Sugar Act, argued that “all men . . . white or black” are “by the law of nature freeborn.” The abolitionist pamphleteers Nathaniel Appleton of Boston and David Cooper, a Quaker from New Jersey, pointed to the hypocrisy of the patriots. Benezet asked in his A Caution and a Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies (1766) how, “at a time when the general Rights and Liberties of Mankind” had become the “Subjects of Universal Consideration,” the “Advocates of Liberty, [can] remain insensible and inattentive” to the condition of those kept in “the most deplorable State of Slavery.” John Trumbull of Connecticut mocked the colonists’ “natural, moral, and divine right of enslaving the Africans” in his satirical article. In 1775 the inhabitants of Darien, Georgia, evoking the vestigial antislavery premise on which their state had been founded, expressed their “disapprobation and abhorrence of the unnatural practice of Slavery in America.” The New Jersey patriot and Presbyterian minister Jacob Green pointed out “what a shocking consideration [it was], that people who are so strenuously contending for liberty, should at the same time encourage and promote slavery! And being thus guilty, expose themselves to the judgment of Heaven!” After independence, Green did not allow slaveholders into his congregation.6

The most radical revolutionary of the Atlantic world, Thomas Paine, not only wrote a compelling plea for American independence, Common Sense, but also published indictments of African slavery. In an essay from 1775 often attributed to Paine, the author advised all European governments to emancipate their slaves. Slavery, he wrote, was “contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of Justice and Humanity, and even good policy.” The son of a Quaker stay maker and a spokesman for revolutionary republicanism, Paine published another essay contending that Africans had a natural right to their bodies, their freedom, and their labor. Some claim he wrote the preamble of the first abolition law, Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation act of 1780. Paine joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1787, but his energies were mostly consumed in promoting the cause of revolution across the Atlantic. Nonetheless, he stood far above most American revolutionaries in his objections to slavery. He unsuccessfully advised Jefferson to remain neutral during the Haitian Revolution and to oppose the introduction of slavery into the Louisiana territory. In the antebellum period, while northern free soilers, who opposed the expansion of slavery, repeatedly invoked Jefferson’s few antislavery pronouncements, abolitionists such as Garrison and Moncure D. Conway looked to Paine for ideological inspiration.7

Revolutionary abolitionists mocked the colonists’ plight when compared to the oppression suffered by black slaves. William Dillwyn, a follower of Benezet who became influential in the British movement against the slave trade, questioned how the colonies could base their claims on “a disinterested generous love to liberty, founded on principle—on publick virtue, and a conviction that it is the unalienable right of man,” when they subject “the Africans . . . to the most abject state of perpetual personal slavery.” The Baptist minister and patriot John Allen put it more strongly: “Blush, ye pretended votaries of freedom! Ye trifling patriots! Who are making a vain parade of being the advocates of the liberties of mankind . . . by trampling on the sacred natural rights and privileges of the Africans.” While “fasting, praying, non-importing, . . . remonstrating, resolving,” they continued the “cruel, inhuman, and abominable practice of enslaving your fellow creatures.”8

Religious revival spurred revolutionary abolition. In New England, some ministers, like Allen and the Calvinists Elhanan Winchester and Benjamin Colman, constructed a Christian antislavery argument. The Connecticut New Divinity adherents of Jonathan Edwards, the theologian of the First Great Awakening, began writing and preaching that slavery was an obstacle to religious virtue. Edwards himself was a slave owner who defended slaveholding clergy from criticism and argued only for the Christianization of blacks and Indians. But he criticized the slave trade, and his followers referred to his ideas in preaching against slavery. In their essays Ebenezer Baldwin and Jonathan Edwards Jr., who went further than his father, refuted Christian and biblical arguments for slavery. Nathaniel Niles and Levi Hart, students of Edwards’s disciple Joseph Bellamy, meditated on the relationship between civil and religious liberty and condemned as sinful spiritual slavery as well as actual slavery and the enslavement of Africans.9

The most noted abolitionist New Divinity theologian was Rev. Samuel Hopkins. Hopkins was appalled by the Atlantic slave trade and widespread slaveholding in Newport, Rhode Island. He included African Americans in his relatively poor congregation and worked with them on antislavery and racial uplift. The devout and indigent Sarah Osborn, who led a religious revival in Newport in the 1760s and held prayers in her home for the poor, free, and enslaved blacks and for women, had been instrumental in procuring his ministry. Besides Osborn, a handful of religious women such as her friend Susanna Anthony and the Quaker revivalist Rebecca Jones, a follower of Benezet and Dillwyn, became associated with the first wave of abolition in the eighteenth century. Like Osborn, Hopkins stressed the spiritual education of his black flock, but he also made their earthly freedom a priority. Hopkins, who had once held and sold a slave, came to regret his actions and started preaching against the slave trade and slavery. To Hopkins, as to the early Quaker abolitionists, they were symptoms of the corrupt, acquisitive nature of commercial society. His doctrine of disinterested benevolence, an early version of the social gospel, steered New Divinity ideas in an abolitionist direction.

Hopkins was influenced by his contact with both enslaved and free Africans. He persuaded the more conservative Ezra Stiles, who had undergone a similar conversion when confronted with the plight of his slave, to join with him in a plan to educate and send two black missionaries, Bristol Yamma and John Quamine, to Africa. Both had attended Osborn’s meetings. They won a lottery ticket and with some help from Hopkins bought their freedom. Yamma and Quamine were educated at Princeton under the personal supervision of its president, John Witherspoon, a proslavery man. Yamma frequently acted as a go-between for Hopkins and Moses Brown, the prominent Quaker abolitionist in Providence. Hopkins and Brown, who intervened in many cases of wrongful enslavement, led the early abolition movement in Rhode Island. Before Hopkins could implement his plans, Quamine died in 1779 aboard a privateer, and Yamma died in North Carolina fifteen years later. Hopkins was also an admirer of Wheatley’s. He purchased a copy of her book of poems and started corresponding with her about his plans for a mission to Africa. Hopkins, however, did not argue for the wholesale colonization of African Americans. The duty of the abolitionist, according to him, was to improve the condition of free blacks and work for their education so that they might attain “an acknowledged equality with the white people.”10

If Benezet’s works were highly effectual utterances of revolutionary abolitionist thought, the writings of Hopkins and Cooper were equally compelling. The two addressed their pamphlets to the newly formed American government, hoping to capitalize on the moment of state formation to make a case for abolition. A patriot who came to view the British occupation of Newport as divine punishment for the sins of slavery and the slave trade, Hopkins dedicated his dialogue of 1776 on slavery to the Continental Congress. In their introductory letter the editors wrote that they presented the dialogue on “behalf of more than half a million persons in these colonies, who are under such a degree of oppression and tyranny as to be wholly deprived of all civil and personal liberty” to those who had gained “the respect and veneration of nations” for acting “in the important, noble struggle for LIBERTY.”

Trying to expand the revolutionary antislavery consensus that condemned the slave trade but not slavery, interlocutor B in Hopkins’s dialogue tries to convince A that slavery is just as reprehensible. As a clergyman, Hopkins was particularly determined to demolish the religious justification for African slavery, refuting the idea that slavery had resulted in the Christianization of Africans (he argued that it had instead brought Christianity into disrepute in Africa), the biblical justification of slavery (he evoked the story of Israelites escaping Egyptian slavery), and the curse of Ham (if true, he argued, then Africans could make slaves of Europeans since there was no correlation between the posterity of Canaan and Africans). Speaking against the popular stance that exhorted slaveholders to merely become good Christian masters, Hopkins contended that the true Christian duty of slaveholders was to free those who were wrongfully denied their freedom. Responding to A’s objection that abolitionists incited slaves to rebellion by making them conscious of their situation, B replies with some authority (Hopkins ministered to Africans Americans) that when they “behold the sons of liberty oppressing and tyrannizing over many thousands of poor blacks,” they are “shocked with the glaring inconsistencies and wonder” why the colonists themselves do not see it. Responding to A’s claims of black inferiority and of masters who bore the expense of caring for their slaves, B argues that all whites not capable of taking care of themselves should then also be enslaved and that all “lordly, selfish” employers complain of giving too much to laborers. In a separate address Hopkins asked “the owners of negro slaves in the American colonies” to relieve themselves of the sin of slaveholding, though he saw it as the provenance of legislatures, magistrates, and “the body of the people” to do away with slavery.11

If Hopkins’s dialogue was a high point in abolitionist protest at the start of the war, David Cooper’s A Serious Address to the Rulers of America (1783) revealed abolitionist disappointment at its end. Cooper had published an abolitionist dialogue in 1772 and may very well have inspired Hopkins. Benezet had copies of Cooper’s address distributed to all members of Congress in Philadelphia, and Washington’s private library in the Boston Athenaeum contains a copy with Cooper’s signature. Cooper assailed the patriots, comparing their oppression by Britain to that of “ours to negroes” as “a barley of corn to the globe we inhabit.” The men who make “pompous declarations” of natural liberty are slaveholders, and when it comes to making laws they say they meant the “rights of white men, and not all men.” The work of abolition, Cooper acknowledged, had begun but not in a manner that would produce “the desired end, the entire abolition of slavery.” He pinpointed the problem with revolutionary antislavery sentiment: “Few among us are now hardy enough to justify slavery, and yet will not release their slaves; like hardened sinners, acknowledge their guilt, but discover no inclination to reform.” He recounted specific instances when slaves of Tory masters had been sold to finance the battle for American independence, and “a great declaimer” of freedom had attempted to reenslave those who had been freed by his debtor. Ten years had passed since foreign restraints on American lawmaking had been removed, and it was a matter, he concluded, of “anxious sorrow” to the “true friends” of the Republic that no measure had been taken to achieve the complete abolition of slavery. Similarly, the radical British clergyman Richard Price, a supporter of the revolution and an abolitionist, praised Americans for “discountenancing” the slave trade, but urged them to get rid of “the odious slavery which it has introduced.” He recommended the British metropolitan example by which a “Negro becomes a freeman the moment he sets his foot” there. For it to have true global meaning, Price argued, the American Revolution must become abolitionist.12

Some historians have posited that by focusing on the metaphor of political slavery, or the enslavement of the American colonists by the British Crown, patriots at best ignored and at worst justified chattel slavery and fought to protect their property rights in slaves. Even those with antislavery views became defensive when it came to slavery. Arthur Lee’s diatribe of 1764 against “negroes in Africa” and vindication of the southern colonies in response to Adam Smith’s criticism of slavery preceded his antislavery address of 1767 drawn from Montesquieu. In the latter, Lee called slavery a “Violation both of Justice and Religion,” one that gave rise to a “fatal train of Vices” in the master and the slave. He still referred to Africans as an “unfortunate and detestable people.” Franklin argued that American slaves were better off than British miners, who, he pointedly noted, were white under the smut, and impressed sailors and soldiers.13

Jefferson’s most famous revolutionary writings, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) and the Declaration of Independence (1776), contained condemnations of slavery and the slave trade. In the first he decried the British veto of colonial laws seeking to prohibit the slave trade, an “infamous practice” that “deeply wounded” the “rights of human nature.” He called “the abolition of domestic slavery the great object desire” of the colonies but indicated that an end to the slave trade must precede “the enfranchisment of the slaves we have.” In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson elaborated on that indictment of the British monarch for waging a “cruel war against human nature itself,” against the “life and liberty of a distant people who never offended him,” carrying them into slavery and a “miserable death.” He called the slave trade an “execrable commerce.” His “vehement phillipic against negro slavery,” according to Adams, was removed at the behest of lower south slaveholders from South Carolina and Georgia. But Jefferson’s censure of the British monarch for inciting the “domestic” enemies of the colonists, presumably slaves and Indians, remained.14

Revolutionary rhetoric marked the apex of antislavery expression by the founders. Patrick Henry frankly admitted to the abolitionist Virginian Quaker Robert Pleasants that he could not do without the labor of his slaves. The prosperous trader and owner of slaves Henry Laurens of South Carolina, goaded by his idealistic son John, made a few antislavery pronouncements but took no action against the institution. Richard Henry Lee, the brother of Arthur, bemoaned the slave trade and slavery but did little for emancipation. James Madison acknowledged that his runaway slave Billy coveted the same liberty as he but did not free his slaves. Some upper south slaveholders manumitted their slaves, the most famous being the wealthy “King” Robert Carter of Virginia. But none of the prominent southern founders, except for Washington, who stipulated in his will that his slaves should be freed after the death of his wife, did so. John Dickinson of Delaware, who was originally from Pennsylvania and was influenced by his Quaker wife, manumitted all his slaves during his lifetime. Nor did any of the southern founders join abolition societies except Luther Martin, a founding member of the Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.15

Most of the northern founders did both. Adams, who never owned slaves, was for gradual emancipation but feared a race war in the South. Sam Adams and John Hancock pushed for a law to abolish the slave trade to Massachusetts and condemned slavery. Franklin, like some other antislavery founding fathers, for example, John Jay of New York, was a slaveholder. He came late to abolition even though he had published abolitionists like Lay and Sandiford and was an admirer of Tryon, Sharp, and Benezet. He and Jay eventually freed their slaves and, along with Alexander Hamilton, lent the prestige of their names to the abolition movement after the war. Franklin’s views on race were contradictory. While he voiced his personal preference for white people, referring to the English “Saxons” rather than the “swarthy” Germans and southern Europeans, Franklin, influenced by his antislavery wife and as a member of the Associates of Dr. Bray, vouched for the intellectual aptitude of black students, whom he found to be just as adept as whites. The sectional division over slavery belies generalizations of either an antislavery revolutionary generation or the equally flattening notion of a proslavery consensus among the founders. Antislavery sentiment among the founding fathers may have been widespread, but committed abolitionists were few and far between.16


African Americans of the revolutionary era, unlike most Euro-Americans, accepted abolitionism in word and deed as an article of faith. Revolutionary leaders were not the only ones to grapple with the contradiction of slavery in a republic, and their British critics, including Samuel Johnson, were not alone in noting that the loudest “yelps for liberty” came from holders of slaves. The petitions for black freedom reveal that from the start African Americans did not hesitate to voice the severity of their situation and question the revolutionary professions of American patriots. A petition from January 1773 of slaves in Boston and other towns in Massachusetts to the colony’s governor and General Court signed simply “Felix” pointed out dramatically that they “had [lived] every Day of their Lives imbittered with the most intolerable Reflection, That, let their Behaviour be what it will, nor their Children to all generations, shall ever be able to do, or possess or enjoy any Thing, no not even Life itself, but in a Manner as the Beasts that perish. We have no property! We have no Wives! No Children! We have no City! No Country!” Couched in deferential language, the petitioners claimed not to want to inflict “the least Wrong and Injury to our Masters” but asked for an abolition law that “to us will be as Life from the dead.”17

Black petitioners supported the antislavery efforts of contemporary whites, who borrowed their ideas and words. In April 1773 they asked James Swan to reprint his pamphlet A Disuasion to Great Britain and the Colonies from the Slave Trade to Africa (1772) and presented their freedom petition together with the pamphlet to the General Court. In 1774 Allen reprinted his An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty, or the Essential Rights of Americans, to which he added “Remarks on the Rights and Liberties of the Africans.” He maintained that even if slaves were “used in the kindest manner,” their “minds must be imbittered with the melancholly reflection, that let their behavior be what it may, they and their children are to be held in Bondage so long as they live!” Allen not only lifted the words of the Felix petition but also reprinted the freedom petition of Peter Bestes, Sambo Freeman, Felix Holbrook, and Chester Joie submitted in April 1773. The four had formed an antislavery committee that spoke “in behalf of our fellow slaves in this province.” Yet another abolitionist pamphlet, by “A lover of constitutional liberty,” urged the Massachusetts legislature to act against “man stealing” and “slave keeping” by heeding the slaves’ petition. It reprinted the original Felix petition, a small essay titled “Thoughts on Slavery” signed by “The Sons of Africa,” and an essay from the Massachusetts Spy demanding emancipation. The writer stated that he had been inspired by the slaves’ petition and asked the General Court to “think candidly of their dejected state.” In 1775 the Worcester county convention, in response to a freedom petition from “Negroes in the counties of Bristol and Worcester” to the local Committee of Correspondence, resolved “That we abhor the enslaving of any of the human race, particularly the NEGROES in this country.”18 The antislavery committee of slaves and the Sons of Africa, modeled most likely after the Sons of Liberty, predated the formation of the first abolition society in Philadelphia by two years.

By using revolutionary language, the black freedom petitions written by organized groups of slaves in the New England colonies during the 1770s imbued their demand for freedom with immediacy. In June 1773 yet another petition by slaves in Massachusetts read, “Your Petitioners apprehend they have in comon with other men a naturel right to be free.” A petition of May 1774 by some Massachusetts blacks asked for “an act of the Legislative to be pessed that we may obtain our Natural right our freedoms and our children be set at lebety.” In 1779 twenty “natives of Africa” from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, petitioned for freedom “for the sake of justice, humanity, and the rights of mankind” and pointed out that “the God of nature gave . . . [us] . . . life and freedom, upon the terms of the most perfect equality with other men; That freedom is an inherent right of the human species.” The same year a petition from the slaves of a Loyalist slaveholder to the Connecticut General Assembly questioned the legitimacy of their enslavement on racial grounds: “Though they have flat noses, crooked shins, and other queerness of make, peculiar to Africans, are yet of the human race, free-born in our own country, taken from thence by man-stealers, and sold in this country as cattle in the market, without the least act of our own to forfeit liberty.” As good “Whigs,” they should be set free to contribute to the patriot cause, and their Tory master should be enslaved! Pomp, a slave in Norwalk, also petitioned the assembly for his freedom based on the fact that his master had deserted to the British. He could “well-provide for Himself” and his wife, a free woman, and their child. The Connecticut legislature freed Pomp.19

The freedom petitioners implied that compared to the sufferings of black people the American cause was trivial. As they sarcastically noted, “The efforts made by the legislative of this province in their last sessions to free themselves from slavery, gave us, who are in that deplorable state, a high degree of satisfaction. We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.” A petition from 1777 submitted by eight black Bostonians, including Prince Hall, the founder of black Masonry, while repeating the language of earlier petitions, expressed “Astonishment that It have Never Bin Considered that Every Principle from which America has Acted in the Cours of their Unhappy Dificulties with Great Briton Pleads Stronger than A thousand arguments . . . that they may be Restored to the Enjoyments of that which is the Naturel Right of all men.” A group of Connecticut blacks declared in their petition of 1779 that it was a “flagrant Injustice” that those “contending, in the Cause of Liberty” deny what “Reason and Revelation join to declare, that we are the Creatures of that God, who made of one Blood, and Kindred, all the Nations of the Earth.”20 The petitioners condemned racism that prevented colonists from including Africans in conceptions of American liberty.

African American petitioners also raised the question of compensation and redress, proposing concrete plans for securing black freedom. Like Sharp, Bestes et al. proposed adopting the Spanish system, which allowed slaves to work for themselves one day a week to earn money to purchase their freedom and “from our joint labours procure money to transport ourselves to some part of the coast of Africa, where we propose a settlement.” In June 1774 blacks in Massachusetts resubmitted their May petition, asking the General Court to “give and grant to us some part of unimproved land, belonging to the province, for a settlement” so that they may enjoy the fruits of their labor. The slave committee’s petition from 1773 had led to the passage of a bill that abolished the slave trade to Massachusetts, but Governor Hutchinson did not sign it and dissolved the General Court. Prince Hall’s petition of 1777, which asked that all slaves be freed at the age of twenty-one, generated an abolition bill in the General Court, but it too was allowed to die.21 The black freedom petitions were not just cries in the wilderness but, along with early Quaker petitions, helped put emancipation on the agenda of the revolution. Their demand for some sort of reparation or “freedom dues,” a colonial custom that had marked the end of servitude, though, fell on deaf ears.

If the revolution engendered black antislavery protest, it also made African Americans subject its premises to criticism. The New England freedom petitions laid the foundations of black abolitionism and its preoccupation with exposing American republicanism. They did not simply appropriate revolutionary ideology but critically engaged it to highlight their plight. In 1774 two black essayists trained their sights on the colonists. Caesar Sarter of Newburyport, a former slave, asked, “If you are sensible, that slavery is in itself, and in its consequents a great evil, why will you not pity and relieve the poor, distressed, enslaved Africans?” Even though black people bore the most shocking bondage, it was thought of too little by those who “enjoy the profits of their labour.” Sarter advised the patriots to consider the liberation of “oppressed Africans” as “the first step,” and only then may they “with confidence and consistency of conduct” strike off their own shackles. Similarly, the anonymous “A Son of Africa” asked, “Are not your hearts also hard, when you hold them in slavery who are intitled to liberty, by the law of nature, equal as yourselves?” He asked the colonists to “pull the beam out of thine own eyes” first. Africans “are a free people” and “were never conquered by any nation.” The Christianization of Africans was merely a “cloak to fill their [masters’] coffers and to screen their villainy.” Slavery was contrary to the laws of God and Britain, he wrote, referring to Somerset. Both essayists warned the colonists of divine vengeance.22

The most erudite black abolitionist was Rev. Lemuel Haynes, a Congregational clergyman who spent much of his life ministering to a white church in Vermont. In the nineteenth century, abolitionists viewed Haynes as an heir to a long line of pious, gifted Africans, including Cyprian and Augustine, and his works were seen as a means to “mitigate the unreasonable prejudices against the Africans in our land.” Abandoned by his white mother and an unknown black father, Haynes was a self-taught indentured servant and preached his first sermon to his master’s devout family. He volunteered as a minuteman in 1774 and served in the Continental Army in 1776 until he was discharged for ill health. After that he worked for clergymen, acquiring instruction in Latin, Greek, and theology. In 1783 he married a white teacher, Elizabeth Babbit, with whom he had nine children. He was ordained in 1785. Haynes’s first biographer, who had heard a few of his sermons, remembered his “impassioned eloquence” and “simplicity and striking effect.” He acquired the approval of President Timothy Dwight of Yale University for challenging the liberal theology of Hosea Ballou, who rejected the doctrine of original sin in his widely reprinted Universal Salvation. Haynes’s theological opponents never failed to draw attention to his color in their rejoinders.23

Haynes’s ballad celebrating the Battle of Lexington, published in 1775, reveals that like other African Americans in New England he experienced the revolution as an “enfranchising experience.” Signed by “Lemuel a young Mollato,” the poem evokes the legacy of Puritan forefathers who tamed a wilderness and fought a “savage Brood” for freedom and life. The battle, he wrote, recalled the “awfull Scenes” of King Philip’s War. But he inserted a critique of slavery in an otherwise conventional narrative of New England history. “For Liberty,” he tells his readers, “each Freeman Strives As it’s a Gift of God” and would rather pay for it with blood than live the life of a “Surviving Slave.”24

Haynes gave vent to his abolitionist views in an essay from 1776 titled “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave Keeping.” Unlike Haynes’s later sermons, it was never published. The essay is clearly influenced by Benezet, whom Haynes quoted extensively. Like the freedom petitioners, he asked every “son of Freedom,” as they engaged in an “important struggle,” to “turn one Eye into our own Breast, for a little moment, and See, whether thro’ some inadvertency, or a self-contracted Spirit, we do not find the monster [tyranny] Lurking in our own Bosom.” Haynes’s signal contribution was his extended meditation on race, nation, and freedom. Everyone acknowledged, he wrote, that “an Englishman has a right to his Liberty,” but an African also has “an undeniable right to his Liberty: Consequently, the practice of Slave-keeping, which so much abounds in this Land is illicit.” He quoted the biblical injunction against racism: God has made “of one Blood all nations of men, for to dwell upon the face of the Earth.” Color, he further averred, should not be the “Decisive Criterion” to deprive one of a natural right, as “whence is it that an Englishman is so far Distinguished from an Affrican in point of Natural privilege?” Some men forfeited their liberty for crimes, but if anyone was guilty of a crime, Haynes points out, it is their enslavers. The condition of blacks in the New World he concluded is “hell upon Earth; and all this for filthy Lucres sake.”25 Slavery put mammon before humans and God.

Haynes was known to follow the “same principles as Edwards and Whitefield” and to scorn the heresy of Arminianism; he was a “labourer” in the religious revivals of his region and an advocate of an educated ministry. He had read Edwards, Bellamy, and Hopkins, but he applied the tenets of Calvinism to criticize both slavery and racialism in a manner that went beyond the ideas of white, New Divinity ministers. Like Hopkins, Haynes ends his pamphlet with an address to slaveholders but in much stronger language condemns their hypocrisy by evoking the authority of the Bible: “Therefore is it not high time to undo these heavy Burdens, and Let the Oppressed go free?” He warned, “While you thus Sway your tyrant Scepter over others, you have nothing to Expect But to Share in the Bitter pill,” and if they did not “Break these intollerable yoaks,” they would find it around their own necks.26 The notion of slaves as instruments of revolution and divine vengeance reflected both his orthodox Calvinism and alternative republican views.

To African Americans, abolition was an important component of the revolutionary agenda. In 1782, “A Black Whig” published a pamphlet, A Sermon on the Present Situation of the Affairs of America and Great-Britain, in Philadelphia that called for nationwide abolition. It was dedicated to the “Americans in General But to the Citizens of South-Carolina in Particular.” This anonymous black patriot claimed he had “taken the liberty of a citizen” to make his case. Firmly identifying himself with the American cause and viewing Britain as “the low abyss of tyranny and despotism,” he even decried British attempts to arm slaves. But in confidently predicting American success, he requested, “And now my virtuous fellow citizens, let me intreat you, that, after you have rid yourselves of the British yoke, that you will also emancipate those who have been all their life subject to bondage.” “Though a descendant of Africa,” he hoped in the end “may we be a free people for ever!” A truly free American republic, he avowed, would come about only with the demise of slavery.27

Revolutionary black abolitionists also developed the Christian critique of slavery. In his published religious sermons, Haynes did not address slavery specifically. Yet starting with his first published piece, “A Sermon on John, 1776” until his valedictory to his Rutland congregation, “The Sufferings, Support, and Reward of Faithful Ministers, Illustrated, 1820,” he stressed the theme of spiritual regeneration. Christian redemption and his own life as a model clergyman were a standing rebuke to slavery and racism.

Unlike Haynes, who wrote most of his explicitly antislavery remarks in his political essays, Jupiter Hammon published two pamphlets in Hartford during the war that dealt with the problem of slavery and freedom from an Afro-Christian perspective, or what one scholar has called “biblical hermeneutics.” In the first, “A Winter Piece,” published in 1782, Hammon addressed those “who have had the advantage of studying” and objected to his writings. Here he made clear that only education, not inherent racial difference, separates him from his white critics. He refers to Africans as a “poor despised nation” brought by God to a “Christian land.” But rather than warrant that Christianization was a justification of their enslavement, Hammon wrote that thousands of slaves “have been born in what are called Christian families,” questioning the Christianity of their enslavers. He criticizes his “objectors” for failing to baptize and educate their slaves. Hammon subtly casts aspersions on the Christian nature of masters and encourages slaves to become exemplary Christians. While concerned with the spiritual well-being of slaves, Hammon approved of their longing for freedom from slavery: “Many of us are seeking a temporal freedom and I wish you may obtain it.” Denying the rumor that he had petitioned a court “against freedom,” he explicitly denied that blacks should restrict their quest to spiritual freedom. In his second pamphlet, “An Evening’s Improvement,” Hammon reiterated that “we are many of us seeking for a temporal freedom, and I pray that God would grant your desire.” At the “advanced age of seventy-nine years,” he did not “desire temporal freedom” for himself. Hammon rejected racial hierarchy by insisting that Christ died for the sin of all humankind. God was “no respecter of persons” and embraced black slaves even as he did enslaved Jews.28

Antislavery pervaded black writing during the revolutionary era. While steeped in the idioms and ideas of their times, black abolitionists developed alternative and oppositional understandings of Christianity and revolutionary republicanism to criticize both slavery and racism. African American actions on the ground complemented these views.


A black revolution, if not the white one, confronted racial slavery. Taking advantage of the chaos engendered by the Revolutionary War, African Americans sought freedom in various ways: by running away, taking up arms, and abandoning the land of their enslavement. The revolution facilitated slave rebelliousness and black military action. African Americans, slave and free, participated in the crowd action against British rule as early as the Stamp Act crisis. They were a part of the revolutionary mob led by the Sons of Liberty that took down King George III’s statue in New York. Even in the heart of slavery in the Deep South, Charleston, South Carolina, African Americans marched to the revolutionary slogan “Liberty.” A rash of slave revolts and conspiracies spread through the Caribbean and the southern colonies in the 1770s. In 1775 authorities uncovered two slave conspiracies led by black water pilots in the Carolinas. The leaders were whipped and their ears cropped; a free black pilot by the name of Thomas Jeremiah, who was probably innocent, was executed.29

With the outbreak of the War of Independence, African Americans waged their own battle for emancipation. Despite the voluminous rhetoric on liberty produced by the patriots, the British were the first to recruit slaves as a matter of military policy. Historically, most slave societies have been reluctant to arm slaves, but European powers, especially the Spanish, recruited free blacks, even slaves during moments of crisis, whether they were fighting each other or Native American nations or both. Slaves were an essential source of manpower in colonial America, and even slaveholders could not afford to ignore that fact during times of war. But military service did not automatically translate into freedom or even into more privileges for slave soldiers, though the Spanish did grant rights to their free black militias. The American Revolution changed that, thanks to the British governor of Virginia, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. His Proclamation of November 7, 1775, offered freedom to slaves and any others who would fight for the British, raising the stakes considerably for blacks who wished to remain loyal. The idea originated with runaway slaves who offered their services to Dunmore. In Massachusetts a handful of black men had done the same to the British governor, Thomas Gage. After Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation was issued, over a thousand slaves as well as some white servants and convicts escaped to the British in Virginia. Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopian Regiment fought in the tattered clothing of slaves but no doubt subscribed to the sentiment of the legendary white sashes proclaiming “Liberty to Slaves” that they supposedly donned. Many succumbed to smallpox, and only around three hundred, including women and children, left Virginia with Dunmore in 1776.30

African Americans fought on both sides to gain their freedom. Abolitionists, arguing for black military service and citizenship during the Civil War, recovered the history of black patriots who had helped secure the liberties of the white Republic. A handful of black men, including Haynes and one Prince Esterbrook, a slave belonging to a local farmer, fought with the ragtag colonial militia in the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. At a decisive moment in the Battle of Bunker Hill a black soldier, either Peter Salem, a slave promised his freedom by his patriot master, or Salem Poor, a particularly honorable black soldier, purportedly distinguished himself by killing the officer leading the British charge, Maj. John Pitcairn. One hundred and fifty African Americans fought at Bunker Hill. When Washington took charge of the Continental Army, he and the Continental Congress, in October 1775, banned African Americans from serving on the American side. In the aftermath of Dunmore’s Proclamation, Washington allowed free blacks, but not slaves, to enlist in the army, a decision supported by Congress.31

Some states allowed masters to use their slaves as substitutes and received compensation for them. Patriot forces used slaves confiscated from Tories for military labor and in some southern states offered slaves themselves as bounties for military service. Desperation at Valley Forge forced Washington to lift his ban, as he and the Continental Congress accepted a proposal to allow Rhode Island to recruit slaves. A 1778 law in Rhode Island enlisted and freed slaves, though it was later rescinded. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which initially contained all-black companies, was chosen by Washington as part of a combined Rhode Island Regiment to lead the Continental Army in the final Battle of Yorktown. Two other all-black companies fought on the patriot side, the Massachusetts Bucks of America, led by an African American, Col. George Middleton, and the 6th Company from a Connecticut battalion. A French contingent of five hundred Haitians probably included André Rigaud and Henri Christophe, leaders of the Haitian Revolution.32

All the northern states followed Rhode Island in allowing slaves to enlist and granting them freedom for their military service. Virginia and Maryland allowed only free blacks to serve, though many slaves in the Chesapeake, pretending to be free or in lieu of their masters, joined the Continental Army. While some masters freed slaves they owned for their wartime service, others remanded them back to slavery. Virginia freed slaves who had served in the patriot forces, but the government there also sold state-owned slaves who had served in the navy. The Continental Congress, responding to British general Henry Clinton’s Phillipsburg proclamation of 1779, which offered freedom and even gave confiscated patriot land to slaves who declared loyalty to the Crown, and to British military success in the lower south, approved of slave enlistment in Georgia and South Carolina. This plan was the brainchild of John Laurens, Washington’s aide-de-camp, whose distaste for slavery matched his patriotic zeal. Educated in Geneva and influenced by the egalitarian ideas of the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Laurens recommended recruiting slaves and freeing them after their military service. Washington’s other aide-de-camp, Hamilton, who proposed a similar plan to Governor Jay in New York, supported him, and Laurens procured a commission to lead such a regiment. Long derided for his alleged rashness, Laurens has only recently been recognized for his abolitionist beliefs. Despite his efforts, both states refused the proposition. Instead, patriot militias in these states hunted down slaves fleeing to the British. Laurens, the lone voice of antislavery to emerge from the lower south political establishment, tragically died in a skirmish during the war.33

At least five thousand, if not more, African Americans fought in the Continental Army and Navy, most of them in integrated units. In the latest edition of their Forgotten Patriots project, the Daughters of the American Revolution have raised that count to sixty-six hundred black and Native American patriots. Black Revolutionary War veterans included Haynes, Prince and Primus Hall, rumored to have shared a blanket with Washington, and Peter Williams Sr. in New York. James Forten of Pennsylvania enlisted as a powder boy in a ship in Stephen Decatur’s fleet and was held prisoner in a British man-of-war for refusing to renounce the American cause. Prince Whipple, who served with his master, William Whipple, signed the New Hampshire freedom petition of 1779.34All of these men became pioneering black abolitionists.

Black Loyalists, including thousands of escaped slaves, far outnumbered blacks who fought with the patriots. Responding first to Dunmore and later to Clinton’s Phillipsburg proclamation, slaves defected to British lines in all thirteen colonies, some belonging to revolutionary luminaries such as Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Madison. During the British occupation of Charleston in 1781–82, seven hundred slaves were recruited into the Black Dragoons, armed, and used as patrols around the city. In New Jersey a slave named Titus fled his Quaker master and, as Colonel Tye, led the Black Pioneers formed by Clinton against the patriots until his death in 1780. Black Loyalist guerillas accumulated supplies for the British, and the British army used African Americans as military laborers, foragers, spies, and soldiers, but they did not make the revolution into a war about black liberation.

Unlike the American Civil War, the Revolutionary War was not fought by either side in the cause of slavery or its abolition. A desperate Lord Cornwallis, in a display of imperial indifference, abandoned many slaves to disease, starvation, and the tender mercies of their former masters at Yorktown. One of the largest slave-trading and slave-owning powers in the world, the British did not fight an abolition war. They were solicitous of Loyalist masters’ right of slave ownership, and some slaves of Loyalists found themselves transported from American to West Indian slavery. An exception was George Liele, whose Loyalist master freed him but who was wrongfully imprisoned until a British officer came to his rescue and helped him purchase his family’s freedom. He founded the first black Baptist churches in Savannah, Georgia, and Kingston, Jamaica. Andrew Bryan, who bought his freedom after the death of his evangelical master Jonathan Bryan, took over the Savannah church. The latter was the brother of none other than Hugh Bryan, who had written against slavery earlier in the century. Both Liele and Andrew Bryan were persecuted by slaveholding authorities in Jamaica and Georgia for their preaching: Liele was imprisoned and Bryan whipped.35

It was the slaves who attempted to make the Revolutionary War into an abolition war, especially in the southern colonies. Most, including entire families and communities, women, children, and the elderly, used the disruption of wartime to simply flee. David George, after seeing his family cruelly abused and himself being “whipped many a time on my naked skin,” explained that his “master’s rough and cruel usage” was the reason for him to abscond. Boston King ran away to escape his master’s cruelty and found the “happiness of liberty” as well as smallpox in British lines. Runaways like Prince Whitten fled from the lower south states to Spanish Florida, as they had done during the colonial era. The numbers are staggering: around thirty thousand in Virginia, twenty to twenty-five thousand in South Carolina, and ten to fifteen thousand in Georgia. A recent estimate has scaled down these figures, originally proposed by Jefferson, showing that at most twenty thousand slaves ran away to the British, twelve thousand from the South. Even so, Gary Nash has called this the largest unknown slave rebellion in American history. The anti–slave trade movement would fail in the short run because of the determination of some lower south slaveholders to make good their revolutionary losses, which were also caused by the suspension of the African slave trade during the war. Slaveholders and the new American Republic made compensation for lost slave property a sticking point in their negotiations with the British in the aftermath of the war. Despite the massive scale of slave defection, there were more slaves in the infant Republic at the end of the revolutionary era than at its beginning owing to the natural increase in the slave population.36

The British for the most part honored their commitment to black Loyalists. Nearly seven thousand slaves and black Loyalists left from Charleston and another four thousand from Savannah. Many left with their Loyalist masters from these ports and from St. Augustine in Spanish Florida, increasing dramatically the black and slave population of the British West Indies. In defiance of Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris, which promised the return of “negroes” and other property to the victorious Americans, Sir Guy Carleton evacuated another three thousand African Americans, listed in a “Book of Negroes” compiled by the British, from New York in 1783. Carleton’s secretary was none other than Maurice Morgann, who had first proposed emancipation in the British Empire. Despite Washington’s personal intervention and attempts by masters to recover their slaves, Carleton refused to break faith with the runaway slaves, and the British government backed his position. Boston King reported that when the slaves heard a rumor that they would be returned to their “old masters from Virginia, North Carolina and other parts,” whom they saw seizing their slaves in the streets of New York, they were filled with “inexpressible anguish and terror.” Nearly ten thousand black Loyalists departed as free men and women. Some were literally “fleeing the Founding Fathers.” A remnant who were not evacuated continued to fight as the King of England soldiers in the swamps near Savannah until being subdued by state authorities.37

The saga of black Loyalists’ quest for freedom did not come to an end with the American War of Independence. They found themselves dispersed all over the British Empire, from the streets of London to the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia. In 1787 over four hundred blacks, assisted by the philanthropic Committee for the Relief of Black Poor, sailed from Plymouth, England, to found the colony of Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa as a haven for London’s blacks. For many British advocates of colonization, Sierra Leone was simply a way to get rid of the black population. First proposed by the naturalist Henry Smeathman, the project was initially supported by Sharp and the black abolitionist Olaudah Equiano as an experiment in black self-government. Equiano, appointed a commissary to the expedition, left the project after falling out with a corrupt official. Sharp modeled the colony after a romanticized notion of ancient Anglo-Saxon governance and solicited the consent and participation of native Africans. But Sharp’s utopian plans foundered on the political dictates and rapacity of local officials of the Sierra Leone Company, founded in 1791, and raids by the local Temne. Some colonists joined the slave traders at Bunce Island, the site of an important British slave trading post that sent thousands of enslaved Africans to the Americas, even though one of the founding aims of the colony was to put an end to “the abominable slave trade.”

Black Loyalists in Canada, who faced white hostility, an unforgiving soil and climate, and long indentures, were also attracted to Sierra Leone. According to King, who became a Methodist preacher, “poverty and distress prevailed on every side.” Denied and cheated of land grants promised by the British government, they sent a representative, Thomas Peters, to London to plead their case in 1790. A runaway slave millwright from North Carolina who had joined the Black Pioneers, Peters made common cause with British abolitionists like Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson’s younger brother, John, a naval officer who became governor of the colony, led an exodus of over a thousand black Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone in 1792. David George, a Baptist preacher and protégé of Liele, reported that “the White people in Nova Scotia were very unwilling that we should go, though they had been very cruel to us, and treated many of us as bad as though we had been slaves.” Inspired by black preachers like George, King, Moses Wilkinson, and John Marrant, Loyalist émigrés viewed Sierra Leone as the Promised Land.

Black settlers in Sierra Leone were left to wage yet more battles for their political rights and economic independence against company officials, some losing their lives to fulfill their dreams of acquiring land and liberty. John Clarkson and Peters, who died shortly thereafter, quarreled, and, accompanied by George, Clarkson returned to England at the end of the year. Another abolitionist governor, Zachary Macaulay, who came into conflict with the colonists for enforcing the company’s demand for quit rents, left Sierra Leone. His son Thomas Babington Macaulay became a thoroughgoing imperialist. In 1800 the Nova Scotians, including Harry Washington, a former slave of George Washington, led an uprising against the company. The rebellion was put down, and authorities unleashed the newly arrived Jamaican Maroons against the rebellious former American slaves. Nearly forty black settlers were executed or banished from the colony. In 1808 Sierra Leone became a British colony, no longer an abolitionist experiment in black autonomy. Despite this outcome, the black migrations to Sierra Leone represented “a black antithesis,” a reversal of the Atlantic slave trade and enslavement in the New World.38


More than the American Revolution and its aftermath, the Haitian Revolution constituted a landmark in the history of abolition. The Black Jacobins of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, helped abolish slavery. In Saint-Domingue slave rebellion was the face of French revolutionary republicanism. While some scholars still debate the contradictory effects of the Haitian Revolution, Haiti “saved the honor of the New World Revolutions” as far as slavery was concerned. Revolutionary black abolitionism was exemplified in the words and deeds of Haiti’s free and enslaved rebels.39 The Haitian Revolution not only instigated slave rebelliousness throughout the Americas but also, long after the fact, continued to inspire the abolitionist imagination.

Thanks to the rebels of Saint-Domingue, revolutionary resistance to slavery became a part of the abolitionist lexicon. Appropriating French republican ideas on the rights of man, free men of color like the martyr Vincent Ogé, who suffered a torturous death at the hands of colonial authorities for his troubles, led the fight for black citizenship. In their petition of 1789 to the French National Assembly, “citizens of color” asked for “those inalienable rights based on nature and the social contract, those rights you have so solemnly recognized and faithfully established.” Even earlier the enslaved had established a tradition of petit marronage, or forming of communities of runaway slaves, and resistance under slave rebels such as Macandal. Starting in 1791 slaves of African descent inspired by Vodou and led by Boukman waged a relentless war against their enslavers. Slave rebellion in the French Caribbean and the efforts of free colored people to secure citizenship pushed the French Republic to grant the franchise to children of free blacks and to all free blacks a year later. It was the slave rebels and their revolutionary allies who married abolition to radical republicanism. In 1793 the Jacobin commissioner Léger Félicité Sonthonax, an admirer of the French abolitionist Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, issued an edict abolishing slavery in Saint-Domingue. Revolutionary deputies from Saint-Domingue at the National Convention in Paris the next year pushed for the abolition of slavery by the French Republic.

United under the brilliant military leadership of Toussaint Louverture, who warded off challenges to his authority by slaveholders, free colored leaders, French emissaries, and the armies of the slave-owning empires of England and Spain, black Saint-Dominguans laid the foundation for Haitian independence during thirteen years of warfare. Louverture articulated the aims of the Haitian revolutionaries: “Let the sacred flame of liberty that we have won lead all our acts. . . . Let us go forth to plant the tree of liberty, breaking the chains of those of your brothers still held captive under the shameful yoke of slavery. Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the imprescriptible and inalienable rights of free men.” Even slaveholders were impressed with the Haitian leader, especially with his unpopular decrees binding freed slaves to plantations to revive the island’s coffee- and sugar-based plantation economy. Though Louverture was imprisoned and died in France in 1802, his successors, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, defeated the world-conquering army of Napoleon, which was undone by yellow fever and the refusal of former slaves to return to slavery.

Over three hundred years after Columbus landed in Hispaniola, destroyed its native population, and introduced African slavery, the island witnessed the birth of the independent Republic of Haiti, its native name, on January 1, 1804. Warning the French to leave the island, the Haitian declaration of independence simply stated, “We have dared to be free, let us be thus by ourselves and for ourselves.” The Haitian Constitution denied citizenship to whites, except for a handful of white women, children, Germans, and Poles who had defected to the Haitian cause, and it defined all Haitians as blacks. However, it ended with a universal appeal to all “friends of liberty” and “those who love mankind in every country” from a “free people, civilized and independent.” Whites who rejected slavery and French rule were welcome to join the black nation.40 This bloody, decisive challenge to slavery and white supremacy, notwithstanding Haiti’s political instability and poverty, aggravated by the colonial policies of its erstwhile rulers and enemies, became sanctified in abolitionist memory.

While much has been written about the proslavery response to the Haitian Revolution and the efforts of Europeans and the United States to form a cordon sanitaire around the black republic, abolitionist reaction to it is understudied. The radical antislavery views of the French philosophe Denis Diderot, who predicted the rise of a black Spartacus, and the socialist Jean de Pechmeja had appeared in Raynal’s compilation, Histoire des deux Indes. From the start, French abolitionists in the Société des Amis des Noirs, or society of friends of blacks, founded in 1788 by Brissot and Etienne Clavière, supported the free colored fight for citizenship led by Ogé, M. Joly, and Julien Raimond and linked it to the abolition of the slave trade. The society counted the Marquis de Condorcet, comte de Mirabeau, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution, among its members. Mirabeau, a member of the Constituent Assembly, worked closely with Clarkson in the attempt to abolish the slave trade and published the journal of the society, in which he printed the writings of British abolitionists. Condorcet was known for his abolitionism and support of women’s rights. In his pamphlet of 1781 Reflections on Negro Slavery, republished in 1788, he referred to black men as his brothers and to slavery as a crime. He also wrote the constitution of the Amis des Noirs. Raimond, who had been a slaveholder, became a member of the Amis des Noirs and, later, of a Jacobin Club. He wrote one of the first systematic refutations of racism, Observations on the Origin and Progress of the Prejudice of White Colonials against the Men of Color (1791). His writings served as a riposte to the white planters of Saint-Domingue, who lobbied the National Assembly against abolition and black rights. Raimond, like Condorcet, advocated gradual emancipation through self-purchase as a way to elicit the slaves’ loyalties for the republic. Appointed as republican commissioner to Haiti by the French Directory, he became a supporter of Toussaint. Condorcet and Brissot were imprisoned and killed during the Reign of Terror, and Raimond, who was briefly imprisoned at the start of the Haitian Revolution, died on the eve of Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt to reconquer Haiti.41

The French abolitionist most associated with the vindication of the Haitian Revolution was the liberal Catholic priest Abbé Henri Grégoire. He was converted by Raimond and enlisted into the Amis des Noirs as a champion of free colored rights. Until his death in 1831, Grégoire was the most prominent French opponent of both slavery and racism. In a letter he assured the free colored citizens of the French West Indies that their country would no longer “be a land of exile, where you meet none but tyrants on one hand, and companions in misfortune on the other; the former distributing, and the latter receiving contempt and outrage.” By leading slaves “progressively to liberty,” he asked them to “fulfill a duty” and “do honor to humanity.” Grégoire, despite his stated preference for the gradual abolition of slavery, remained a staunch defender of Haiti as the custodian of revolutionary republicanism. Haiti, not America, he said, would be a beacon to the world. Grégoire forged a relationship with the southern republic of Alexandre Petion and the united Haitian republic in 1820. He predicted that Haiti would exercise “great influence on the destiny of Africans in the New World.”42

Clarkson, an admirer of the French Revolution, had met Ogé in London on his way back to Saint-Domingue and supported his fight for free black rights. Clarkson wrote one of the first briefs in defense of the Haitian rebels in 1792. According to him, the revolution was a result of the efforts of slaves to win the “Rights of Man.” Taking advantage of the white planters’ “vanity and guilty obstinacy,” slaves had struck against slavery. Reversing the popular claim of the Jamaican historian Bryan Edwards that abolitionists had instigated rebellion, Clarkson felt that abolitionists should be inspired by the rebels to double their efforts against the African slave trade. The Haitian Revolution contributed to the resurgence of abolition in Britain led by men like Henry Brougham, who wrote influential pamphlets against the African slave trade. Later, both Clarkson and William Wilberforce corresponded with Christophe of Haiti’s northern kingdom to discuss ways in which to assist the new black nation, what Wilberforce called “the African cause.” Clarkson became Christophe’s adviser and unofficial ambassador of Haiti, lobbying the French government to recognize the black nation. The Haitian government named one of its man-of-wars Wilberforce. The abolitionist lawyer and Wilberforce’s brother-in-law James Stephen recommended an alliance with the “sable heroes and patriots” of Haiti and wrote a hagiographic biography of Louverture, the first of many such biographies written by abolitionists.43 Rather than championing European colonialism, abolitionists were ardent defenders of the new black nation.

The abolitionists’ understanding of the Haitian Revolution was strongly influenced by one of the few sympathetic eyewitness accounts of it. In 1805 Marcus Rainsford, a soldier in the West India Regiment, wrote a massive book on the rise of Haiti and bore witness to the fact that “negroes were capable of repelling their enemies, with vigour.” Richly illustrated with portraits of Louverture, images of cruelties practiced by the French and of bloodhounds being loosed against the black population, and a letter in Louverture’s handwriting, the work disavowed having any antislavery intentions, but it blamed the “opulence and dissipation” of the planters for the rebellion. Rainsford’s laudatory description of Louverture and condemnation of Napoleon’s treachery were widely adopted in abolitionist writings. He also defended the actions of Dessalines as a reaction to French atrocities. Rainsford concluded that he was “untinctured with prejudice of any kind, unless the spirit can be so called, which inclines towards truth and humanity,” and added an appendix of several important documents from the revolution. Rainsford’s book, dismissed by historians as having no effect on the perception of the Haitian Revolution compared to the gory stories that dotted Edwards’s account, was widely accepted in abolitionist circles. In later years, Haitian writers like Louis Félix Boisrond-Tonnerre, the author of the Haitian declaration of independence, and Pompée Valentin, Baron de Vastey, who served under Christophe, fully vindicated the revolution and spelled out its significance to antislavery.44

The Haitian Revolution stimulated black assertiveness throughout the Western hemisphere. In the 1790s black Jacobinism spread to Río de la Plata in Uruguay and to Maracaibo, Cartagena, Demerara, and Coro in Venezuela, and the Second Maroon War broke out in Jamaica. In 1812 the Aponte uprising of slaves and free people of color in Cuba came on the heels of the institution of a liberal constitution and the debate over abolition in the Spanish Cortes at Cádiz. Colonial authorities confiscated an illustrated book from the home of the militia veteran José Antonio Aponte containing portraits of African kings, the Spanish king, Aponte’s ancestors, black soldiers defeating whites as well as Washington, Louverture, Dessalines, and Christophe. Slave rebels often invoked Haiti to justify their plans for rebellion. Christophe of the northern kingdom of Haiti helped rebels in neighboring Santo Domingo against Spanish rule. In 1821 Haiti conquered Santo Domingo and enacted abolition there. Latin American revolutionaries like José San Martín and Simón Bolívar turned to Haiti for assistance in their anticolonial struggle against Spain. Petion sent aid to them on the condition that abolition and black rights be part of their revolutionary agenda. He also instituted a policy of declaring free any runaway slaves who made their way to the black republic, making Haiti free soil. The Haitian Revolution was an important precedent for slave runaways and free black soldiers who demanded emancipation during the Latin American Wars of Independence. Like the free coloreds in Haiti, free blacks insisted on political equality with whites. By the 1820s nearly all the former Spanish colonies in Latin America where abolition was expedited by warfare had decreed a gradual end to slavery.45

Slave resistance inspired by the Haitian Revolution fueled fears of rebellion in the United States. In 1793 a shadowy Secret Keeper plot led by a black preacher named Gowan Pamphlet involved slaves in Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Black Baptists led by the brothers Moses and Gowan Pamphlet had been meeting secretly outside Williamsburg since the Revolutionary War. By the 1790s Gowan Pamphlet’s congregation numbered five hundred. In Charleston the revolutionary French counsel and soldiers were suspected of fomenting slave rebellion. Four years later some so-called French negroes in the city, slaves of émigrés from Saint-Domingue, were accused of arson and of planning to start a rebellion. In 1795 the Pointe Coupee slave conspiracy in Louisiana, inspired in part by the events of the French and Haitian Revolutions, led to the execution of twenty-three slaves and the whipping and deportation of thirty-one others. In 1800 Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith from Henrico County, Virginia, led a large, well-organized conspiracy that included slaves and free blacks, including literate artisans well versed in revolutionary ideology and partisan dissension in the early American Republic. Gabriel, “the American Toussaint,” planned to march under the revolutionary slogan “Death or Liberty.” He was determined to spare those with an antislavery reputation—poor whites, mechanics and artisans, Quakers and Methodists, Frenchmen—and attack only planters and merchants. Two Frenchmen were also implicated, and the plot involved nearly a thousand slaves and free blacks. The aptly named Pharaoh and Tom revealed Gabriel’s plans on the eve of rebellion, which led to the quick trials and execution of Gabriel and twenty-six other rebels.

One slave conspirator taunted his republican oppressors by reporting that he could say only what Washington would have said had he been caught by the British, namely, that he was a “willing sacrifice” for the liberty of his people. A New England poet, possibly Timothy Dwight, warned,

Remember ere too late,

The tale of St. Domingo’s fate.

Tho Gabriel dies, a host remains

Oppress’d with slavery’s galling chain.

Two years after Gabriel’s attempt was discovered, an Easter conspiracy led by a slave named Sancho spread from southern Virginia to Halifax County, North Carolina. Slave ferrymen like Sancho who plied the inland waterways of this region were implicated in the scheme, which was put down summarily in both states. Black seamen had been instrumental in disseminating news of the Haitian Revolution along the informal communication network between slave communities on the Atlantic seaboard. Southern states, starting with South Carolina in the aftermath of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822, felt threatened enough by their presence to pass the Negro Seamen laws, which confined them to jail during their stay in slave ports. As Edwin C. Holland of South Carolina bemoaned, the slaves of his state were the “true Jacobins” and anarchists. Other Carolinian slaveholders continued to blame the abolitionists, particularly the Amis des Noir, “who set on foot the Insurrection at St. Domingo.”46

In 1811 Haiti finally came to America. Charles Deslondes, a mixed-race slave driver, led a group of slaves in rebellion at Manuel Andry’s plantation in Louisiana, killing his son Gilbert and wounding Manuel. Donning European military garb like the Haitian rebels, these men started the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history, the German Coast rebellion. For days Deslondes had plotted the rebellion with two African-born slaves bearing the Akan day names Kook and Quamana and a Virginian slave carpenter, Harry Kenner. Eventually two hundred to five hundred mostly young male slaves “armed with plantation tools and primed by revolutionary ideals” escaped from their plantations on the Mississippi River, joined forces with Maroons, and marched east toward New Orleans. They burned plantations along the way, killing at least one sadistic planter. Fleeing planters spread news of the rebellion, and in New Orleans Gov. William Clairborne called on the U.S. Army and militia volunteers to secure the city and put down the rebellion. As the slave army strategically retreated, enraged armed planters alerted by the wounded Andry cornered it from behind. Venting their rage on the rebels, the planters killed and beheaded their victims in a pitched battle. Slave-hunting bloodhounds brought down a fleeing Deslondes. Kook, Quamana, and Kenner were tried and went to their deaths without betraying their compatriots. In a display of state-sanctioned terror, planters posted the rotting heads of a hundred rebels on pikes dotting the road from Andry’s plantation to New Orleans.

Unlike the Haitian rebels, who were able to best the might of the Napoleonic empire, American slaves were no match for the slaveholding republic’s empire of liberty. Around the same time, nervous slaveholders detected slave conspiracies in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Haiti continued to pop up as a source of inspiration in slave rebellions throughout the antebellum period. Vesey had not only visited Haiti but also planned to gain assistance and shelter there. In the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion, a former slave named Nero warned of a rebellion led by a Virginian slave trained in Haiti with about thirty-five others who “were taking lessons from the venerable survivors of the Haytian Revolution.” If the uprising proved to be unsuccessful, Haiti would offer “asylum for those who survive the approaching carnage.”47

American abolitionists praised the Haitian Revolution from the start. In 1791 Abraham Bishop of Connecticut wrote a three-part series called “The Rights of Black Men,” the first systematic antislavery response to the rebellion in Saint-Domingue in the United States. Bishop linked the black fight for freedom with the American Revolution, asking, “Is not their cause as just as ours?” He asked Americans to be consistent and not to “sacrifice principle to a paltry partiality for colour.” He castigated the new American Republic, where “blacks are still enslaved. . . . The Indians are driven into the society of savage beasts, and we glory in the equal rights of men, provided that we white men can enjoy the whole of them.” Slaves had no choice but to take up arms to fight for their freedom, Bishop argued, mocking those who would ask Africans in a slave ship to petition their enslavers. Bishop’s article was also a call to arms for antislavery societies to assist the Saint-Domingue revolutionaries with “pen, the tongue, the counsel, the sword, and . . . money.” He deplored the proslavery and racist cast of American public opinion, which “evinced a great zeal in favor of the whites. . . . One can hardly wish the blacks to be victorious without exposing himself to censure, calumny and opprobrious names.” Bishop was part of the abolitionist milieu in Connecticut at this time, a Federalist convert to Jeffersonian Republicanism. In his pamphlet Negro Slavery Unjustified (1802) Rev. Alexander McLeod, an abolitionist Presbyterian minister from New York, also reasoned that “the courage and skill of the negroes in war will no longer be disputed, after their transactions in St. Domingo,” and “great must be his prejudice who can deny to the black Toussaint the qualifications of a Warrior and a statesman.”48

The anti-French Federalist administration of John Adams briefly fulfilled abolitionist expectations. Earlier, Jefferson, as Washington’s secretary of state, had, over Hamilton’s objections, authorized aid to the beleaguered French colonists, and the governor of South Carolina, Charles Pinckney, had offered his state’s assistance to them, as had slaveholding colonial governments from Spanish Venezuela to the Caribbean. Adams’s secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, a man of antislavery sympathies, bolstered Louverture’s position against his internal rivals with an American naval presence, and the U.S. government entered into favorable trade agreements with him. The counterrevolutionary policies of Jefferson’s Republican administration after “the Revolution of 1800” inaugurated a long period of political and economic embargo against the black nation. Jefferson’s initial hope that free blacks could be colonized in Haiti was quickly overtaken by his support for Napoleon’s proslavery policies. Ironically, Haitians facilitated Jefferson’s acquisition of Louisiana by destroying Napoleon’s hope of building a French empire in the New World. Jefferson, who called the Haitian revolutionaries “cannibals of the terrible republic,” set into motion a policy of isolating the black nation. The abolitionists’ call for the recognition of Haiti throughout the antebellum period was in vain. Not until the administration of Abraham Lincoln would the American government extend diplomatic recognition to Haiti.49

The most direct consequence of the Haitian Revolution in the United States was the influx of refugees into cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans. Fleeing planters, many of whom arrived with their slaves, elicited the sympathy of whites and relief efforts by local, state, and federal governments, alarming slaveholders with their horror stories. Memoirs and works written by white slaveholding expatriates reinforced and encouraged racist depictions of the Haitian rebels. Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint Méry, a former planter and staunch opponent of black rights and freedom, published an influential two-volume book on Saint-Domingue. Born in Martinique, he had worked and married into a slaveholding family in Saint-Domingue, studied and lived in France, and fled to Philadelphia during the French Revolution. But the story of Saint-Dominguan exiles is not primarily a white one.

Enslaved Saint-Domiguans solicited the help of abolitionists in their legal quest for freedom. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society assisted in 456 manumissions of so-called French slaves even though their owners tried to get around the state’s emancipation laws. The standing committee of the New York Manumission Society recorded several instances of intervening on behalf of slaves from “St. Domingo.” In 1807 it recorded the case of a Frenchman who illegally transported three black boys to New Orleans. Many French slaves ran away, and one committed suicide, thereby inspiring an abolitionist address. The author, Edward Darlington, used the occasion to point to the culpability of the entire nation in upholding slavery. The largest contingent from the second influx of Saint-Dominguan refugees in 1809 went to New Orleans, which had longstanding connections with Saint-Domingue under French rule. Colored Saint-Dominguans reinforced the creole culture of free blacks in New Orleans. They fought against the British under Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, and during Reconstruction their community emerged as a powerful voice for black rights. Some, like Rosalie of the Poulard nation, persistently sought to have her own freedom and that of her family legally established in their new home and bestowed a legacy of self-determination and activism to her descendants. In Baltimore free colored women of Haitian descent founded the first black order of nuns, the Oblate Sisters of Providence.50

The most well known black Haitian immigrant was Pierre Toussaint, who had accompanied his master’s family to New York as a teenager. He enjoyed considerable success as a hairdresser, supported his mistress, and managed to buy his sister’s and his wife’s freedom. In a peculiar reversal of the master–slave relationship, one which he no doubt relished, Toussaint supported his master’s family, even sending expensive gifts to his poverty-stricken white godmother in France. These women who accepted his generosity not only made him pay for his sister’s freedom but also advised him not to support black women, who they felt should be gainfully employed. Toussaint’s mistress freed him only on her deathbed in 1807. A devout Catholic whose canonization is being championed today, Toussaint was once refused entrance to the church he frequently attended and where he had a pew. Religion and language—in his memoir, written by a close friend, he is represented as speaking only broken English—isolated him from New York’s activist black community even as his business gained him access to the highest social and political circles. Unlike Toussaint, the Haitian emigrant John Appo in Philadelphia converted to Episcopalianism and became allied with the leading black abolitionist there, James Forten. Yet another emigrant, Joseph Cassey, married the daughter of the black abolitionist Peter Williams. He joined Forten in supporting Garrison and was an agent for the Liberator.51

The Haitian Revolution had an impact on black activism in the United States. The year Haiti became independent, an anonymous writer reported that black Philadelphians had formed themselves into military companies, robbing and assaulting whites, and that they damned “any white person who came near them . . . declaring ‘they would shew them St. Domingo.’” This manufactured tale, repeated uncritically by historians, contrasted sharply with the politically sophisticated way in which African Americans did note the significance of Haiti. Black Philadelphians commended the French National Assembly for abolishing slavery in the colonies. Prince Hall, in his charge to the African Masonic Lodge in 1797, asked African Americans not to be “cast down under these and many other abuses” but to look for inspiration to the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue. Only six years earlier he reminded them, “Our African brethren . . . in the French West Indies” were tortured, whipped, and killed to gratify “their masters pride, wantonness and cruelty.” But now “doth Ethiopia begin to stretch forth her hand, from a sink of slavery to freedom and equality.” The fact that the Haitian republic was established on January 1, 1804, probably contributed to the rise of January First celebrations in black communities that commemorated the end of the slave trade. Black Bostonians drank toasts to the “liberty of our African brothers in St. Domingo, and elsewhere” and to Haiti, “the only country on earth where a man of color walks in all the plenitude of his rights” at their celebrations. In 1818 Prince Saunders, an advocate of emigration to Haiti, recapitulated the proud history of the slave revolution and praised the “traits of bravery and heroism that belong to the Haitian people.”52

Black abolitionists began composing justifications of the Haitian Revolution after the country’s unification in 1820 under President Jean Pierre Boyer. Dessalines’s assassination in 1806 had plunged Haiti into civil war and resulted in its division into two countries, a northern monarchy ruled by Christophe and a southern republic under Petion. In 1823 Rev. Jeremiah Gloucester of Philadelphia, the son of the founder of black Presbyterianism John Gloucester, quoted Louverture in his slave trade oration of 1823. He praised the “sons and daughters” of Africa who “effectually broke their chain in the Island of St. Domingo, and have proclaimed the imprescribable rights of man, sealing the covenant made with liberty, by their blood.” He predicted that “ages to come will read with astonishment, the history of their brilliant exploits! Yes, liberty, which they have been invincible defenders of, has found an asylum in the bosom of a regularly organized independent government.” For Gloucester, January 1 was to be celebrated not only for the closing of the African slave trade but also for the establishment of the first black nation.

Black New Yorkers named their lodge the Boyer Masonic Lodge in honor of the Haitian president, and the black abolitionist John B. Vashon named his son George Boyer Vashon. Forten argued that Haiti proved Africans “could not always be detained in their present bondage” and that they “would become a great nation.” African American gatherings in Boston and Baltimore led by Rev. Thomas Paul, an advocate of black emigration to Haiti, and William Watkins marked the recognition of Haiti as an independent nation by France in 1825. Watkins noted that Haiti was “an irrefutable argument to prove . . . that the descendants of Africa were never designed by their Creator to sustain an inferiority, or even a mediocrity, in the chain of being.” Black Americans drank toasts to Haiti’s independence, to Washington, Bolivar, and Toussaint, and to abolition societies.53 They saw the Haitians as part of the revolutionary abolition movement.

In 1826 John Brown Russwurm gave a rousing vindication of the Haitian Revolution in his commencement address at Bowdoin College in Maine. Born in Jamaica to a Virginian merchant and slave woman and educated in Canada and New England, Russwurm became one of the first black college graduates in the country. Black advocates of Haitian emigration, Saunders and Paul mentored Russwurm, who, like Saunders, taught at the African school in Boston. Of all recent interesting events, the Haitian Revolution held, Russwurm said, a “conspicuous place.” Haitians had declared themselves independent on the “auspicious day” of January 1 and courted death over slavery. The excesses of its revolution were only “retaliatory measures.” The Haitian Revolution, Russwurm concluded, had shown the world that “slavery may benumb, it cannot entirely destroy our faculties” and that all men, even those of a “darker complexion,” were “sensible to all the miseries of slavery and to all the blessings of freedom.” Upon graduating, Russwurm briefly considered emigration to Haiti. His graduating class consisted of the prominent northern doughfaces the future president Franklin Pierce and his friend Hawthorne. He, rather then they, was chosen to deliver the commencement address. Russwurm also wrote a twenty-two-page essay that was marked by the “hagiographical treatment of Louverture prevalent in abolitionist writings.”54

By the antebellum era, abolitionists, black and white, regularly evoked Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. Revolution in the Americas, which began with a white settler rebellion, ended with a powerful statement on behalf of black freedom. The best exponents of revolutionary abolition were the slaves themselves, whose world historical actions forever changed the dynamic in the battle between slavery and freedom in the Americas.

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